Newsletter Article: How to Become A Better Sawyer
How to Become a Better Sawyer
I cannot think of a skill that will make you more efficient in the shop than being a good sawyer. When making wood furniture all parts need to be cut to length, cut to fit or cut to shape. Saw-cut to saw-cut joinery is the concept of being able to assemble a joint right from the saw. Alan Peters taught this in a very matter-of-fact way, you were expected to assemble your dovetails from the saw one and only one time and with glue. Anything less and you would be the guy sweeping the floors. So how do you get that good? Let’s cover this by looking first at your choice of tools specific to the job and then we will cover technique using grip, arms, legs and eyes.
There are essentially two types of sawing teeth for woodworkers, crosscut and rip. Cuts to length, going perpendicular to the grain, call for crosscut teeth for best performance. These teeth have three sides meeting at a point. It’s this sharp point that severs the long wood fibers to reduce tearing and produce a clean cut. The nature of wood is that it breaks much cleaner when split along its length than when breaking across its length. The latter requires deep, sharp scoring first to produce a clean break. This is what the crosscut teeth do. When ripping along the length of the board we use a “rip” tooth, think of a chisel point. This tooth has a cutting edge made from two sides meeting. This knocks out small chunks of wood leaving two smooth walls on either side of the kerf or groove.
Each blade of teeth requires “set” or “off set” of alternate teeth. Bending alternate teeth slightly, increases the width of the kerf or groove. This permits the saw blade to easily pass through the wood without binding. The amount of set determines how smooth the cut will be, the more the teeth are offset the more they scratch or rake the side walls leaving a ragged finish. The second downside to excessive set is the lack of tracking or steering of the saw blade. Narrow set limits the side to side movement of the blade as it passes through the wood, keeping the saw on “track”. Excessive set allows the blade to wander side to side requiring the sawyer to steer the saw. How much is just right? When sawing dry, stable furniture woods, .002” per side works well on my saws. Straighter the cut, flatter the surface and better the joint. This applies to both crosscut and rip.
Blade thickness should be kept to a minimum necessary for the saw to hold its shape while sawing. Thicker the blade the more wood being removed the more work and effort by the sawyer. Joinery saws (dovetail, tenon, crosscut, carcass) utilize a heavy back to stiffen a thin blade for fine delicate work. A panel saw or ripping saw designed to pass its entire width through the board can’t have a back stiffener, so it needs to be thick enough to hold its shape. These saws cut on the push stroke and they need to be stiff to perform well without being distractedly heavy. Wood has varying densities throughout; spring growth tends to be less dense and easier to cut while slower growing summer wood is more dense and harder to cut. The blade of your saw needs to prevent following the path of least resistance and wandering in the cut. Japanese saws utilize very thin blades and they often wander towards the less dense material particularly in thick western hardwood. These saws work exceptionally well in light woods like cedars that tend to crush under any cutting pressure.
Tooth count is important to the saws performance when matched to the job. As a tooth passes through the wood, waste is pushed forward much like a plane blade. Unlike a plane blade, the waste has just one place to gather and that is in the gullet ahead of the tooth point. When this gullet fills up the tooth cannot continue to cut, effectively stopping the sawing. The desired balance is speed of cut vs ease of starting and effort required to push the saw through the wood. My rip saws have 2 inches of small, relaxed, starter teeth at the front of the saw followed by larger and more aggressive main teeth. Most dovetail joints are in 3/4inch or thinner woods, 15 tpi (teeth per inch) is a good size for a dovetail saw. I use a zero-degree cutting face for appropriate speed and aggression of the main teeth, the starter teeth are relaxed to a negative 30 degrees to make starting a breeze, allowing the sawyer to concentrate on where to place the cut.
For a tenon saw the cuts tend to be longer and deeper. This works best with a stiffer saw plate and a bigger tooth. What I have balanced here is to make a saw more aggressive with a bigger tooth for deeper cuts but backed off the cutting face to make it a little easier to push. The main teeth are 12 tpi which makes for a deeper gullet, more space for sawdust , same minimal set (.002 per side) and the saw blade or plate is .025 inches. The latter stiffens the blade since the cutting depth is over 2 inches vs. 1-5/8 inches on the dovetail saw. The cutting face is backed off by 10 degrees, this is noticeable in hard woods like maple and cherry.
The saw handle plays a big role in developing the long-term benefits of muscle memory. Pistol grip saws are held the same way each time they are picked up, this “feel” tells the sawyer where the blade is oriented. Soon the “feel” allows you to make repetitive cuts consistent and accurate. Contrast this to a round gents saw handle, never held the same way, in a dark room which handle instantly tells you where the blade is pointed? Weight is the final factor in determining the right “equipment”. Woodworking power tools use heavy and dense materials like cast iron to stabilized and dampen vibration. If you have ever used a light duty table saw vs the larger and heavier duty saw, you instantly experience the difference. This advantage works with hand tools as well. Stanley once experimented with aluminum hand planes-briefly! A heavy saw doesn’t jump around, saws smoothly and the weight of the tool does the work leaving you to simply aim and push/pull. The other advantage to weight is the gravitational pull to plumb. I always set my board plumb in the vise, this allows me to have gravity teach where plumb is as I prepare to saw.
Most of this information applies equally to crosscut saws. A notable difference is the relaxed cutting face of crosscut teeth, for this reason these saws don’t need the small starter teeth. Set of the teeth is the same, .002 inches per side, this gives a smooth finish that can leave a ready-to-join surface. I keep my small joinery crosscut just for joint work, shoulders around tenons, miters on mitered edge dovetails and flat miter cuts. I use my bench crosscut for less precise jobs like cutting parts to length on the bench hook. This save so much time from walking across the shop to the chop saw or table saw. This tool has a bigger tooth, 13 tpi, deeper capacity (2 inches) and longer, thicker blade (11inches X .025 inches). I use the same handle on all my saws, another way to benefit from muscle memory.
The final word on sawing equipment is to keep the teeth sharp and properly set. All edge tools work commensurate with edge sharpness.
Now to address technique and how to become a good sawyer. Stability is the first factor; a milking stool is a good example. Barn floors are typically not very flat, a four-legged stool will always rock, change to three legs and it becomes rock solid! In front of your shoulder vise, Stand with your legs shoulder width or more apart, dominant foot behind the opposite foot by 10- 12 inches. Non-sawing hand holds the work piece as its clamped in the vise, this is the third leg of our milk stool. Knees have a slight “shock absorbing” bend. Hold the saw with a light and comfortable grip, think of holding a baby’s hand. Pistol grip saws use three fingers with the index finger pointing down the blade.
The saw and forearm need to hang directly below the sawing shoulder. This requires a slight tilt at the waist toward the sawing side. What initially May feel awkward will eventually seem normal with a bit of practice. I like to saw with the work piece held low in the vise to better stabilize it and dampen vibration. At this point I prefer the saw to be able to sit level on the top of the board which means my forearm should be parallel to the floor. Next adjustment is to align the saw, my hand, wrist and forearm in a straight line while the upper arm moves forward and back directly under my shoulder. This sawing motion should mimic the piston on an old locomotive. Any angle adjustments of the saw to the board need to be made with the feet. Pivoting from the saw on the board, move your feet to the right or left to align the saw with the desired angle, be careful to keep your sawing line straight from the elbow to the saw tip and the elbow directly under your shoulder.
At this point you need to relax, over gripping the saw is a common reaction when learning to saw. You have to separate being able to keep your upper arm, elbow, lower arm and wrist stable without over gripping the saw. Your opposite hand plays a big role in getting the saw started on the mark! I pinch the wood with my index finger and thumb but only with the bottom 1/3 of each digit. This moves the contact point between the blade and the protruding bump of the finger/thumb above the set of the teeth. Lower and you risk cutting yourself. With these fingers creating an anchor point, press the saw laterally against the digits with enough force to prevent the saw from “skirting “left or right as you begin the cut. You can use your fingers to “inch worm” the saw into perfect position. Your next task is to stabilize the sawing angle whether plumb or sloped before you start the cut and maintain this till the kerf gets 1/8” deep. At this point the tracking will take over and as long as you are not squeezing the handle, the saw will cut in a straight line. Any adjusting after starting will twist the blade and risk losing the flat face at the top of the cut.
Use short light strokes with the front two inches of starter teeth to begin the cut. You need only go deep enough to catch your thumbnail before you can engage the rest of the saws larger and fast cutting teeth. Now use long strokes so all the teeth get equal work. Slow down as you near your gauge mark, stopping right on the line will make for efficient stock removal. You will find yourself worrying about the back line as you land on the front gauge line. The more you saw the sooner you will obtain a feel for when the saw is level, at this point when you reach the front gauge line you will hit the back line at the same time. That’s it! Follow this simple tutorial and you’ll be a pro before you know it.